The NY Times Magazine looked yesterday at brand management challenges facing Sesame Workshop in bringing its Muppets to Palestinian kids on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the show is filmed in a bullet-pocked building that "seems to be simultaneously under construction and decaying into a ruin." "Shara'a Simsim," originally a controversial spinoff from the Israeli Sesame Street, airs on a microbroadcasting channel which journalist Daoud Kuttab, who produces the show, founded in order to broadcast it.
"Shara'a Simsim" was originally ordered up by Sesame Street in the '80s as a segment on the popular Israeli version "Rechov Sumsum." It was spun off in the '90s as a joint Israeli-Palestinian production -- a partnership that brought significant tensions. After the 2000-01 intifada suspended the cooperative effort, the show evolved into a Palestinian stand-alone.
Though local producers ensure that each extension of its globally popular kids' brand fits its culture, the brand is managed centrally from New York.
The Times reports:
Since the inception of “Sesame Street” in the United States 40 years ago, the nonprofit New York City-based organization that produces the show, which is now called Sesame Workshop, has created 25 international co-productions. Each country’s show has its own identity: a distinctive streetscape, live-action segments featuring local kids and a unique crew of Muppets. Bangladesh’s “Sisimpur” uses some traditional Bangladeshi puppets, and South Africa’s “Takalani Sesame” features Kami, an orphaned H.I.V.-positive Muppet. But in each co-production, at least in its early years, every detail — every character, every scene and every line of script — must be approved by executives in the Sesame Workshop office, near Lincoln Center. This requires a delicate balance: how to promote the “core values” of Sesame Street, like optimism and tolerance, while at the same time portraying a version of local life realistic enough that broadcasters will show it and parents will let their kids watch. The Palestinian territories have been, not surprisingly, a tough place to strike this balance, Sesame executives say, rivaled only by Kosovo.
Interestingly, most of Sesame Workshop's interventions with the Palestinian production revolve around child safety: "child Muppets couldn’t be seen cooking without an adult, for instance." While the show's writers push hard for a political slant, Sesame guidelines serve to limit the activist impulse. When the Palestinian show's marketers proposed promotional posters showing kids playing around the new Israeli wall enclosing the West Bank and tearing it down, the New York-based brand managers vetoed the image on safety concerns, feeling that:
excluding these scenes was a no-brainer. Aside from the political ramifications, there are basic safety issues involved in destroying a concrete military border. "It’s a very dangerous position for a kid to be in," Farouky explained to me. "He could get shot. Just giving a 3-year-old a hammer is something we wouldn’t show."
The Palestinian production is not Sesame Workshop's only foray into war zones, and they're far from the only global brand to face such challenges. But while the challenges of navigating the grim tensions of politics and poverty are multiple, so are the rewards inherent in bringing the joy associated with Muppets to refugee children.